I have been thinking a lot recently about the benefits of not pretending to know stuff, of putting oneself consciously at a place of not knowing in order to be more open to explore what is possible. This is an attempt to write this down. The thinking is not finished and needs much more refinement, so please bear with me – and share your own reflections this might evoke in the comments.
The inspiration for this has come from different directions. Firstly, Dave Snowden introduced a new way of looking at the central domain of Cynefin that used to be called ‘disorder’ earlier this year. It is now called ‘confused/aporetic’, with aporetic being the mentioned state of putting oneself consciously at a point of not knowing. The second influence was a piece on education Nitzan Hermon asked me to comment on, which has unfortunately not been published yet – but he allowed me to use some quotes from it in this post. Finally, I listened to a very inspiring episode of the On The Edge podcast, in which Roland Harwood interviews Steve Xoh, an artist who works a lot with using not knowing (or rather aporia) in a playful way – and a subsequent very inspiring chat with Steve.
I had the great pleasure to talk to Chris Corrigan for another episode of the Systemic Insight Podcast (Episode 9). Chris is a facilitator and an expert in complexity-sensitive facilitation techniques. He has been using similar methods and frameworks as Mesopartner, such as for example the Cynefin framework, developed by Prof. Dave Snowden. Chris describes himself as a process artist, a teacher and a facilitator of social technologies for face to face conversation in the service of emergence. His business is supporting invitation: the invitation to collaborate, to organise, to find one another and make a difference in our communities, organisations and lives.
Chris and I talked about the difference between being an expert that brings solutions and a facilitator that creates the conditions for emergence. We discussed the importance of invitation and respecting human dignity in collaborative processes and in dialogue. During the discussion, Chris described the Cynefin framework and how he uses it in his practice. Chris presented Cynefin as an incredibly useful generative framework and shared how we can use it to make sense of action.
Chris and I also discussed the current COVID-19 pandemic, how complexity concepts suddenly become very important and useful, and we explored quite deeply the relationship between leadership, moral and ethics, complexity and decision making.
Finally, we talked about the concept of dialogue and dialogic approaches and how they are fundamentally part of how we humans make sense of the world around us, interact and collaborate, and explore different options on how to act.
As the episode is 1.5h long and not everybody might be able to put aside enough time to listen to it, below some extracts of the podcast, partly verbatim quotes by Chris, partly paraphrased by me. Hopefully this is enough of a teaser so you will still go and listen to the full episode, its well worth it!
So, where are we in this discussion? What are the challenges around transitioning ideas from complexity into projects and programmes? To answer these questions I have reached out to Arnaldo Pellini, founder of Capability, to hear about his experiences working with development initiatives and discuss some of the open questions we are yet to answer.
Last week, I spent the day with the Big Lottery Fund and a bunch of evaluators who are running five large evaluations of major BLF programmes. The evaluators come together regularly to exchange and learn from each other’s experiences. This meeting was focusing on the topic of evaluation and complexity. I was asked by BLF to set the scene by talking about what complexity is and why it is relevant for evaluation. Afterwards, I enjoyed listening to the evaluators on how they made sense of complexity and the consequences for their evaluations. Here a summary of my inputs and some insights from the subsequent discussion. Continue reading →
We know that current development challenges are complex. But not all elements of a development programme are necessarily complex. How does a theory of change look like that shows us which aspects of a programme are complex and which aren’t? How does this help managers to develop appropriate strategies for interventions and focus their attention?
I have been thinking quite a bit about monitoring and how to find a monitoring framework that works in programmes that are facing the complexities of the real world (and I blogged about it before here and here). More and more monitoring guides speak about the complexities programme managers and staff face ‘out there’ and some guides even venture as far as to say that change in the real world is not linear or predictable. The new BEAM Monitoring guidance, which I co-authored, for example, states that ‘a market systems programme is unlikely to achieve its goals in a simple, linear way. It may be difficult to fully understand (at least in advance) how causes and effects will work at a system-wide level. There may therefore be significant uncertainties about how the overall market system may be re-oriented to serve poor people better.’ Continue reading →
The Cynefin Framework with the newly renamed ‘Obvious’ domain (formerly ‘Simple’). Source: Cognitive Edge
In the Cynefin framework, complex and chaotic are two separate domains. Complexity is defined as the domain where agents and constraints co-evolve, chaos as where there are no constraints. Both are part of the unordered side of Cynefin, i.e. where events are unpredictable and expert knowledge and analysis are not leading to better decisions. Chaos is seen as a domain where you don’t really want to be, so all you have to do there is go act quickly and decisively to get out. To use Dave Snowden’s words: “Chaos is a transitionary domain. (…) If you collapse into it without [intention] then the strategy is to move out in a controlled way; you will move out as constraints happen naturally. Entered deliberately it can create the conditions for radical innovation, used as contained chaos it allows for distributed cognition or Wisdom of Crowds. Nothing resides in Chaos for any period without sustained effort.” Continue reading →
This week, the five partners of Mesopartner and Marcus are meeting in South Africa for the annual partner meeting. The meeting is an important event for Mesopartner where knowledge and learning is exchanged, new ideas and theories are shared, the Summer Academy is planned, and many other strategic issues are discussed. Continue reading →
The last week of June I had the privilege of attending a three-day training event with Dave Snowden, founder of Cognitive Edge and “mental father” of the Cynefin framework. For me this was a great experience and although I had read a lot of stuff around complexity (also by Dave), there were still many new insights I got. Some things were new, others just became clearer. One thing that I knew but that was becoming more pronounced during the training is the differentiation between best/good practice and emergent practice. Continue reading →
One concept I like when I’m thinking of complexity is the Cynefin framework developed by Dave Snowden (see the picture on the right). I mentioned the framework already in one of my answers to the comments of the last post on ‘What is complexity?’.
The beauty of the framework is that it helps you to categorize problems in simple, complicated, complex and chaotic. Furthermore, it gives you a strategy for each of these domains how to design your problem solution. For example for complicated problems the strategy would be ‘sense – analyze – respond’, meaning that first you have to sense the problem, analyze the system (or call in experts who know the system) and respond based on the analysis.
I do think that it makes sense to differentiate between the four domains. The problem really is that in the past we treated many problems that are actually complex as only complicated or even simple problems. Also in international development. In order to categorize these problems as actually being complex, we need this sort of frameworks and guidance how to approach them.
I realize that I use the word categories here. Now if you listen to the video on YouTube where Dave Snowden introduces the Cynefin framework, he makes it quite clear that this is not a categorization model, but a sense-making model. A categorization model, in his explanation, is model where the framework precedes the data. That means that the data can be filled in quickly into the existing model – with the risk to lose out on the subtleties. A sense-making model on the other hand is one where the data precede the framework. Here, “the pattern of the framework emerges from the data in a social process”, as Dave Snowden puts it.
But I think it is easiest if I let Dave Snowden introduce the framework himself. Have a look here at the YouTube movie.
For more information, there is also a Wikipedia page on the Cynefin Framework.